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Volume 18, Issue 38;   September 19, 2018: Columbo Tactics: II

Columbo Tactics: II

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Last updated: September 19, 2018

This is Part II of a series showing how the less powerful can adapt the tactics of TV detective Lt. Columbo when they're interacting with the more powerful.
Four clutches of reed warbler eggs, each with a cuckoo egg present, on display in Bedford Museum

Four clutches of reed warbler eggs, each with a cuckoo egg present, on display in Bedford Museum, United Kingdom. Some cuckoo species are brood parasites, which means that they rely on other species to raise their young. This is often accomplished with egg mimicry, as shown in the image above. In each clutch the cuckoo egg is the largest one. But because the egg is similar enough to the reed warbler eggs, the host is deceived.

Lt. Columbo uses an analogous strategy when questioning suspects. By inserting his most critical questions in amongst a stream of irrelevant questions and general patter, his suspects often remain unaware that they have just given themselves away. Photo by Simon Speed courtesy Wikimedia.

In the workplace, when the more powerful interact with the less powerful, or the much less powerful, they're at risk of overestimating their power. They do have superior organizational power, but they might not have superior intellectual power. Using the tactics of TV detective Lt. Columbo, the less powerful can achieve a kind of parity that enables everyone to perform at their potential.

As described last time, a situation in which the Columbo strategy is helpful occurs when a project manager (Patricia), whose project is struggling, must deal with a committee of senior managers formed into an Emergency Reaction Force (ERF), to help Patricia sort out her troubled project.

Here's Part II of a catalog of tactics based on Columbo's tactics, but also applicable to Patricia's situation. Read Part I first if you haven't.

Gather information on your own
Even though Columbo invested significant effort and attention in questioning his prime suspect, he also conducted other investigations to gather, among other things, relevant information about the suspect's movements and the state of the suspect's knowledge.
For example, if the obstacle is a failure of the departmental IT leads to deliver needed information about the number of desktop computers that need upgrades, Patricia makes certain that she has the latest data each morning, even though the upgrades are incomplete. She also has reports from the upgrade team indicating how many systems had been upgraded the previous night. By comparing her data, day-to-day, with the data from the upgrade team, she can check them consistency.
Bury the critical question in amongst irrelevant questions
As Lt. Columbo knew, some questions are so unusual that they cause the suspect to wonder, "Why did he ask that?" To avoid so alerting the suspect, he would insert such questions in amongst a series of other seemingly innocent or irrelevant questions. He could then get the information he needed without alarming the suspect. This technique helps him achieve the strategic goal of keeping the suspect calm.
Patricia can do Perhaps the most famous of
Columbo's tactics might be
called One-Last-Thing
something analogous if she needs information from the ERFs. The kind of information most valuable to her is that which reveals what the ERFs know or don't know about the project, or what they believe is the source of the problem. Asking them directly is risky, but a question inserted in amongst questions about how to carry out what they've directed her to do might not be.
Ask one-last-thing when you already know the answer
Perhaps the most famous of Columbo's tactics might be called One-Last-Thing. Just as he was ending an interview of the suspect, he'd halt in mid-stride, scrunch his forehead, point to his right temple, and exclaim, "Oh, I almost forgot." His gestures, timing, and tone all communicate that the question he's about to ask is truly unimportant. But, of course, it later turns out to be the final nail. At the time, though, the suspect doesn't notice how important it is.
Patricia can do something similar. If she's done her homework (see "Gather information on your own" above), she might know something that renders dubious what she has just been directed to do by the ERFs. She has asked a question or two about it, raising some minor issue or other, and the ERFs have reassured her and told her, "Just do it," or something equally condescending. She agrees, and says, "OK, will do." Then, just as the meeting is ending, she says, "Oh, I almost forgot, Chicago told me last night that X" and then asks the question that reveals a basic flaw in the ERFs' plan. By doing so, Patricia helps to establish that her sources of information are quite good, and that she does know something about managing this project.
There are some risks associated with using this tactic. Because of the importance of the non-verbal elements of Columbo's technique, it's difficult to get the level of impact in a phone conference at work that Columbo can achieve in person. And if the ERFs include people familiar with Lt. Columbo and his tactics, they might recognize it. But these two points aside, it's very effective.

In 69 episodes, Lt. Columbo used a wide range of tactics to solve numerous crimes. The six tactics I've described are perhaps the most memorable and adaptable, but certainly there are more. Enjoy your further research. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Congruent Decision-Making: I  Next Issue

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